THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

A once-exemplary federal witness stands accused of robbing 2 banks

By John R. Ellement
Globe Staff / March 12, 2011

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In the 1980s, William DeVincenzi of East Boston went from small-time criminal to what officials said was one of the best members of the federal witness program ever, helping to solve a murder and put a large number of gangsters in prison. But today, he sits in jail, accused of being the bandit who robbed two banks last week with phony pipe bombs.

DeVincenzi, 47, and a second man, Theodore Sawtelle, 33, also of East Boston, were arrested in dramatic fashion by the FBI Violent Crime Task Force on Wednesday in downtown Boston as they allegedly were heading to rob a Bank of America branch on Friend Street in North Station.

According to an affidavit by a task force member, Somerville Detective John Oliveira, filed in US District Court in Boston, DeVincenzi had a third fake bomb on him when he was arrested, an incident that was witnessed and photographed by workers from their office windows.

DeVincenzi is being held by federal authorities pending a detention hearing next week in US District Court. His court-appointed attorney, Scott P. Lopez, declined comment on the case or his client’s background.

Sawtelle is also in custody pending Monday’s hearing. His attorney, Stephen D. Weymouth, declined to comment.

But DeVincenzi turns out to have more than a checkered past from his 20s, when he was charged with a slew of crimes, including participating in a murder.

According to two law enforcement officials briefed on the current investigation but who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the case, , the DeVincenzi taken down on Canal Street this week is the same man profiled by Globe columnist Kevin Cullen in 1987 when Cullen was a crime reporter.

Cullen reported that state and federal authorities solved dozens of bank robberies, armored-car heists, and drug crimes based on information DeVincenzi supplied.

He was so effective, Cullen wrote, that officials with the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives at the time said they never had a better witness, and none as successful in obtaining convictions, than Bill DeVincenzi.

His most significant case played out the 1980s in Suffolk Superior Court, where he testified that two former friends killed a security guard during the robbery of the East Boston Tello’s, part of a small, popular chain of women’s clothing stores.

Jurors believed DeVincenzi and, after four days of deliberations, convicted the men of first-degree murder. However, on appeal, a divided Supreme Judicial Court ruled 4-3 that the judge mishandled the way he explained the deal DeVincenzi reached with prosecutors and tossed the convictions, according to court records.

It was not immediately clear yesterday when DeVincenzi ended his participation in the federal witness protection program.

But, according to the federal affidavit filed this week, DeVincenzi has admitted he was inside the Everett branch of the East Boston Savings Bank on March 3 and inside the Bank of America branch on March 4, using fake bombs to rob both banks.

The first robbery was a bust — the teller slipped in a dye pack that detonated over the cash — but the second time DeVincenzi allegedly collected $3,843 in cash after he warned the teller not to include a dye pack, according to court records.

Tipped off by the ATF that their bank robbery suspect may be DeVincenzi, law enforcement began following him.

On Tuesday, Sawtelle and DeVincenzi allegedly made their way to downtown and prepared to rob the Bank of America branch, but changed plans after seeing a Boston police officer working a paid detail nearby, according to the records.

They both returned the next day — traveling by the MBTA from East Boston — when police took them into custody.

“Both individuals subsequently admitted that they were going to commit a robbery’’ at the Bank of America branch, Oliveira wrote in the affidavit, adding that “DeVincenzi admitted to committing the two bank robberies’’ in Everett and Winthrop.

John Ellement can be reached at ellement@globe.com.